Seldom does the thin line between success and failure feel slimmer than in the tense final days of a tight British & Irish Lions series. Even by the brutal standards of elite rugby it is knife-edge territory. “As I always say there’s nowhere in between,” murmured Warren Gatland this week. “It’s agony or ecstasy.”
And at international level, perhaps more so than in most sports, that increasingly means playing the percentages. It is easy enough for onlookers to suggest this series decider needs to be an uplifting spectacle for the wider sport’s sake but Gatland strongly suspects entertainment is not currently sitting atop South Africa’s priority list. “I don’t think they care. I think they just want to win.”
As do the 2021 Lions, of course. If this series has underlined anything it is that pragmatism is now the order of the day. The days of twinkle-toed fly-halves and slim, bouffant-haired outside-centres winning a modern Test series with subtle little outside breaks have all but gone the way of hickory-shafted golf clubs and wooden-framed tennis rackets.
Gatland is particularly interesting on the subject. Along with everyone else in the pro game he has long since recognised the fundamental importance of tactical kicking: the accuracy, the territorial aspect, the kick-chase, the hang-time, the contestable element. Nor does he have to look far to locate the undisputed masters of the aerial arts. “South Africa won the World Cup, and they won the World Cup through their kicking game. The only team they lost to in 2019 were the All Blacks and the All Blacks kicked more than South Africa. Every other team that they played and won they kicked more than the opposition so that’s kind of where the game is at the moment.”
Plunge deeper into the stats, as Gatland has done, and South Africa’s no-nonsense style becomes even more understandable. “It is about territory and putting kick pressure on, not playing too much rugby. They don’t want lots of phases at breakdowns because every breakdown is a 12% chance of a turnover. You get to the next phase, it’s a 24% chance and the next phase is a 36% chance. Those are the sorts of things and stats people are looking at and you’re just limiting the percentages.
“And if you are South Africa and you have physical men who can scrummage, maul, defend well and have their kicking strategy then they are a hard team to knock over. Probably the one team that’s got the ability to really unlock them with the players they have is the All Blacks. With everyone else who plays against them, you are in a tight battle and an arm wrestle.”
Which prompts the million dollar question: how can his side escape the ominous grip the Springboks belatedly established in the final quarter last Saturday? Simply playing the Boks at their own strangulation game will not be enough for the Lions, as the former All Black and 2001 Lions coach Graham Henry has sagely observed. “I don’t think they’ve got a choice: if they want to win they’ve got to play,” said Henry. “They need to play a lot more football if they’re going to get a result because the South Africans have probably got the wood on them up front and their kicking game’s better.”
It will not be easy, as Gatland is the first to accept. “There’s a lot of pressure in international rugby, isn’t there? There’s less space, everyone’s bigger, faster, stronger and quicker and defensive systems are in place. You never see teams going round each other in the international game now, unless someone makes a mistake or someone’s parked up on the short side after a long series of phases. It’s all about someone making mistakes or going through each other from a kick or something like that.
“You very rarely see, say, the old draw-and-pass to put someone into space. Those were the days when those sorts of thing used to happen but there’s very little space in the international game at the moment.”
Hence why the Lions are so keen for the game to be played at a higher tempo, with far fewer interruptions than was the case in last Saturday’s “Timeless Test” when the first half spanned 63 minutes alone. Gatland has also highlighted the need to be both patient and smart. “If they’re going to kick the ball as much as they do and try and scrummage and drive lineouts and slow the game down then sometimes you’ve just got to weather that and just wait until you get the right bounce of the ball or the right chance to take your opportunity. We’ve just talked about execution and making sure we look to take those chances.”
When opportunity knocks, in summary, the Lions need to be ready and have a cup final mentality: carpe diem and all that. And whichever side endures, the victorious head coach will not be overly focused on neutral definitions of entertainment. “The pressure from players and everyone else is always about just winning,” confirmed Gatland, looking to preside over the first Lions series success against South Africa since 1997 and only the third since 1896.
“Often it’s not about how you play, it’s just about the result at the end of the day.” Having coached on four Lions tours, few know more about the wafer-thin line between love and hate than he does.